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The Independent Critic

STARRING
Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson, Mark Linn-Baker
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
James L. Brooks
MPAA RATING
Rated PG-13
RUNNING TIME
116 Mins.
DISTRIBUTED BY
Columbia Pictures
DVD EXTRAS
  • Commentary with Filmmakers
  • Select Scenes Commentary with James L. Brooks and Owen Wilson
  • Deleted Scenes Commentary by James L. Brooks
  • Blooper Reel
  • Extra Innings
 "How Do You Know" Review 
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Despite his recent tendency towards mediocrity, think Spanglish, it's nearly impossible to not approach the impending arrival of a James L. Brooks film with a high degree of expectation and an almost frothing sense of anticipation. While they are seldom box-office home runs, Brooks films are historically critically lauded award magnets with rich storylines and well developed characters.

Broadcast News?

Terms of Endearment?

As Good As It Gets?

James L. Brooks can write and James L. Brooks can direct. So, what has happened? While Spanglish was far from a disaster and, indeed, did attract awards attention for supporting actress Cloris Leachman, the film felt less authentic and resonant than most of Brooks' films and, strangely enough, How Do You Know continues the trend to an even greater degree despite having an arguably better cast and Brooks regular Jack Nicholson.

How Do You Know is a rom-com with virtually no rom and very little com. What's left are characters who don't much matter, despite generally decent performances from Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd, and a storyline that completely lacks the trademark Brooks sizzle and emotional spark.

Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is a gifted and popular softball player sent into retirement when she hits 30 only to find herself wooed by two different men, Matty (Wilson) and George (Rudd). Matty is a professional baseball player, a multi-millionaire player in more ways than one. For the most part, Matty doesn't have a faithful bone in his body other than his perpetual boner. George, on the other hand, is a genuinely nice guy and successful financier working for his father (Nicholson), who is more successful and much less ethical than his son. Despite his aura of goodness, George is likely facing an indictment due to his father's financial misdeeds and, as such, to Lisa Matty looks like the more stable, dependable option.

While the potential for richly developed, intriguing characters is present here and it's easy to see why everyone here signed on for the project, somewhere along the way How Do You Know loses its sense of direction and Brooks seems to lose control of what's going on here. How Do You Know becomes "Why do we care?"

The truth is that How Do You Know would have been much more effective as a romantic drama, and one can only hope that Columbia Pictures didn't manipulate Brooks into turning this into a perky Reese rom-com. Witherspoon has proven before that she's able to handle drama, and her performance here even exudes this sense of "There's more here...why aren't we going for it?"

As my fellow members of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and I were preparing for awards season, movie screenings and the receipt of screeners, we kept looking at each other wondering "What's up with How Do You Know?" After all, how can a James L. Brooks film be opening up in awards season and not be a contender? Ah, apparently the studio knew.

How Do You Know isn't a bad film, but it ranks near the bottom for James L. Brooks, a disappointingly empty film with characters who occasionally entertain in the moment but do almost nothing of lasting value. Owen Wilson is the film's highlight, doing a variation of virtually every character he's ever successfully pulled off yet adding a bit more spark and a bit more sauciness to it. Wilson seems to be having a good time here, which is more than can be said for the surprisingly detached Jack Nicholson. It doesn't help that Nicholson's storyline is the weakest, giving his performance the feeling of trying to make something out of nothing.

Rudd does wonders as George, a generally good guy on a bad luck streak that has made uncertain virtually every aspect of his life. While there are comic tones to this character, it would have been much more convincing had Rudd been allowed to explore George's inner workings a bit more completely. There are scenes with both Wilson and Rudd that are simply delightful and, as well, there are scenes of wonderful sentimentality in the film that will make you realize just how brilliant this film could have been.

Witherspoon is fine as Lisa, though her character isn't nearly as rich as one might hope. Witherspoon finds some interesting places to take Lisa, giving the actress a humanity that isn't always revealed by the words being spoken. Lisa does what so many of us do, male and female, when faced with major life changes. She explores and re-defines, withers into herself then blossoms once again.

It's difficult to deny that How Do You Know is at least a modest disappointment for those of us who consider ourselves fans of James L. Brooks, yet the film likely contains enough light breeziness to pass as a solid matinee for his usual fans and for couples seeking a mutually agreeable cinematic experience. How Do You Know is, in fact, much less a rom-com and much more of a closeted character study on characters adjusting, adapting and learning to go with the ever changing flow called life.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic
    The Official Rating Guideline
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